Wearable artificial “muscles” that can help those with functional disability to walk, sit and stand are in the works, thanks to the U.K. researchers who created “smart” trousers, a set of leggings designed to help older adults stay mobile longer.

In September, the new FREEHAB project will kick off work on small, soft wearables made using 3D-printable electroactive gels and pneumatic structures that change shape when inflated and exert force. The developers hope to make a variety of devices that can be worn on the knee or the foot for example.

The aim is to support both therapists and their patients during functional rehabilitation, says robotics professor and project leader Johnathan Rossiter, Ph.D., of the University of Bristol.

“Together with integrated sensing technology, we will make devices that physiotherapists can use to accurately pinpoint limitations in their patients’ movements, thus enabling them to plan personalized training programs,” Rossiter said. “We will also make simpler devices that the patient can use to enhance their mobility activities and exercise with confidence when a therapist is not with them.”

One in four Americans lives with disability, and of those, over 13% have a mobility disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Considering the growth of the elderly population worldwide, assistance is needed to keep people functioning safely, longer, says Rossiter. The new devices will be tested with the input of physiotherapists and former therapy patients. The aim is to proceed to clinical trials and then bring the devices to market, he said.